Friday State News Briefs: Police across state contributing more to pensionsWisconsin News
-- More of Wisconsin’s police officers are paying higher pension contributions – even though they’re not required to under the state’s new public union bargaining law.
More of Wisconsin’s police officers are paying higher pension contributions – even though they’re not required to under the state’s new public union bargaining law.
In Eau Claire, city attorney Steve Nicks says a new two-year agreement has unionized police personnel paying six-point-six-five percent more for their pensions – and it’s generally offset by a total two-year pay raise with the same percentage. Also, the new contract calls for officers to pay eight-percent of their health insurance premiums. Nicks tells Wisconsin Public Radio that the net result helps the city budget, while taxpayers are basically paying for a wage freeze for officers over the next two years. Police-and-fire personnel were exempt from the union limits when they were first adopted. But because a judge’s ruling in September tossed out bargaining limits for most local government and public school employees – pending an appeal by the state that’s still going on. Nicks says Eau Claire Police made a big sacrifice, but it helps the city with its budget. They’ve been without a new contract since July of last year. Nicks said talks were held up because of uncertainty over the union law – and they were waiting to see how other cities were handling their police contracts. Nicks says Superior and Kenosha are among other communities that have off-set higher police pension contributions with corresponding wage hikes.
State auditors say the agency that runs the public employee pension system is not doing enough to enforce the rules for those who retire, get rehired, and collect both a pension and a paycheck. The Legislative Audit Bureau found that 2,800 UW employees retired, and were later rehired from 2007-through-last year. The audit said the Department of Employee Trust Funds does not have the ability to determine when and where the system’s being abused. And the auditors suggested written procedures to perform investigations when needed. The law lets retirees return 30 days after they leave – but the rehiring must not be planned in advance. The idea is to make sure the work gets done, in situations where it takes longer than expected to replace a retiree. And indeed, the audit showed that most returnees worked fewer hours in their second stints, and were employed for less than a year. The audit found four cases of abuse. The practice drew heavy criticism last year, when it was learned that a UW-Green Bay vice chancellor retired from a 131-thousand-dollar a year job – and came back a month later and got both his salary and a large pension. It was all prearranged, and that led to allegations of double-dipping. It was also the case that triggered the audit and today’s findings. The Green Bay incident happened during the controversy over the law which limits public union bargaining – and thousands of public employees retired for fear that Republicans would cut their pensions if they didn’t seize them first. That never happened, just as Governor Walker promised it wouldn’t. And after the Green Bay incident, there were reports that many retirees had quietly returned, and got paid twice with their salaries and pensions.
A vice president in Wisconsin’s technical college system is about to be promoted to the top spot. Officials announced today that Myrna Foy will become the new president of the 16-campus tech college system in January, after Dan Clancy retires. Foy has been an executive assistant and a vice-president for policy and government relations in the tech school system since 2005. And she’s been an administrator in the system since 1998. Foy is the first female president of Wisconsin’s technical colleges in the system’s 100-year history.
Jurors in Fond du Lac are expected to start deliberating this afternoon in the trial of Jason Anderson, who’s charged with killing his wife 13 months ago. Attorneys were making closing arguments late this morning, after a week-and-a-half of testimony. The 36-year-old Anderson is charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the shooting death of his 33-year-old wife Nicole. Prosecutors said Anderson shot her on purpose as she was sleeping. But the defense claimed it was an accident And the judge gave jurors the option of convicting Anderson of a reckless homicide charge if they could not determine that he intended to kill his wife. Prosecutors said it was no accident because Anderson did not call for help after the shooting – and police had to track him down to Birmingham, Alabama, where he was arrested at a motel two days after the killing.
A man killed in a fiery traffic crash in South Milwaukee was identified today as 40-year-old John Janick of Caledonia. Police said they were trying to stop Janick, because he was driving 25-miles-an-hour over the speed limit. An officer lost sight of Janick – and his vehicle then slammed into a tree and started on fire. The flames ignited a nearby house, but nobody was hurt in that structure. The traffic crash remains under investigation.
Most of us need some kind financial break at Christmas – and we’re getting one at the gas pump. The Wisconsin Triple-“A” says the average statewide price for regular unleaded is just over $3.29 this morning. That’s a penny-and-a-half cheaper than yesterday, and 12-cents less than a month ago. Experts say crude oil prices have stabilized, there’s less demand for gas in the winter, and the conversion to winter-grade fuels is complete. The federal government said gas prices dropped by seven-and-a-half percent in November – that that drove the Consumer Price Index down by three-tenths of a point for the month. USA Today says gas could drop below three-dollars-a-gallon by New Year’s Eve. Some prices are already below three-dollars in neighboring Minnesota, where the Twin Cities has an average of just $3.08.
A manager for a Milwaukee firm has been sentenced to six months in prison, for stealing $59,000 from a parking meter operation in Saint Louis. Frank Habeebullah was the Saint Louis representative for the Milwaukee-based Duncan Solutions, which was contracted to operate the city’s parking meters. Duncan then hired Dankar Enterprise Incorporated to handle the Saint Louis outfit. Dannielle Welch-Benson owned Dankar – and prosecutors said she inflated her company’s bills to Saint Louis by five-thousand-dollars a month or more from mid-2009 through 2011. She kept over two-thirds of the excess, while Habeebullah got just under a-third of it. Welch-Benson was sentenced to over two years in prison for her role in the scheme. Both defendants will get three years of probation once they’re no longer behind bars.
A plea deal appears to be on the way for an Adams man accused in the death of another man in a drunk boating crash. 22-year-old Christopher Collins waived his preliminary hearing yesterday. He stood mute while an Adams County judge entered innocent pleas to four charges that include drunken homicide, and causing injuries by drunk boating. A plea-and-sentencing hearing – in which a plea deal would normally be taken up – is set for January fourth. Authorities said Collins was driving a boat with four passengers after they stopped at an island party and a couple of bars in July – and he struck a rock on Castle Rock Lake. The crash killed 23-year-old Michael Miklavicic of Friendship. Sheriff’s investigators quoted Collins as saying he heard somebody yell a warning, and he tried to steer around a bridge pillar but couldn’t. Officials said his blood alcohol content at the time was .13, more than one-and-a-half times the minimum level for intoxication.
Governor Scott Walker continues to meet with Wisconsinites to hear their concerns, before he puts his next state budget together. Yesterday in New Richmond, the Republican Walker attended a listening session attended by over 200 employees at Bosch Packaging Technology. He was also planning a similar session at Trego in far northwest Wisconsin. Workers and their bosses have brought up numerous concerns in similar events the governor has held in recent weeks. Yesterday, Walker further explained his reasons for not pursuing right-to-work legislation like the law passed in neighboring Michigan this week. The governor said it would take away from his five main priorities for the next session – to create jobs, train workers, transform education, reform government, and invest in infra-structure. Meanwhile, back in Madison, Democrats challenged Walker’s claim that he has created 86-thousand jobs. The numbers come from the U.S. Labor Department’s quarterly employer surveys, which are much more complete than the samples taken for the monthly unemployment reports. State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate says the monthly figures are the ones used for years to measure job growth – and Tate says Walker’s ignoring them because he doesn’t like what they say. The monthly data shows that Wisconsin only added 25,000-plus private sector jobs in 2011. Walker has promised a quarter-million new jobs in his current four-year term.
Only a handful of people attended a public hearing yesterday on a long-proposed Indian casino in Beloit. Scott Doig of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs says his agency will review the impact on traffic and other matters, before deciding in 18-to-24 months whether the casino could be built. State approval would also be needed. The Ho-Chunk tribe plans to open a 700,000-square-foot casino in Beloit with a 300-room hotel and a theater. It’s been on the books for years – but it’s been tied up in a long-running federal dispute over the locating of gaming houses away from tribal reservations. Beloit leaders have long supported the casino, saying it would help a city that’s still struggling after the recession. Randall Upton of the Greater Beloit Chamber said it would be a quote, “amazing step forward.” But Jane DeSoto of Beloit spoke against the casino, saying the jobs would be low-paying – and it would not improve the area’s quality of life. Despite the small turnout at the hearing, Beloit City Manager Larry Arft told Madison’s WISC-TV that the proceeding itself was a good sign that the project’s moving forward in Washington.
Two men were killed overnight in a one-vehicle crash in Waukesha County. Sheriff’s deputies were called to a rural intersection just after two a.m. The two victims were said to be in their early-20’s. No one else was in the vehicle. There was no immediate word on the victims’ identity, or what caused the mishap.
The snow from last weekend did almost nothing to relieve dry conditions in the soil. The U-S Drought Monitor said 88-and-a-half percent of Wisconsin’s land area was in some type of drought this week. That’s just four-hundredths-of-a-percent less than a week ago. East-central Wisconsin remains the only region that’s not abnormally dry or worse. Northwest and far southern areas continue to be in a severe drought. The reports are based on conditions from Tuesday – and quite a bit of snow has melted since then, so it will be interesting to see how the seepage affects the dry conditions underground. Meanwhile, the U.S. Agriculture and Commerce departments have entered into an agreement to improve their drought forecasting and data-sharing efforts. The need for improvements was brought up in a series of regional conferences on the drought.
A big step was taken this week to connect two public forests in northern Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. The Wisconsin Natural Resources Board agreed to spend one-and-a-half million dollars to buy almost 600 acres in Vilas County. Several thousand more acres would need to be purchased in order to connect the American Legion State Forest with the Ottawa National Forest in the UP. American Legion forest superintendent Steve Petersen says his crews plan to actively manage the additional forest land – and that provides jobs in the timber industry. It will also be open to public hunting, fishing, and hiking.